(Timothy S. Jackson, pictured with Richard Berkowitz, the last living co-author of the Denver Principles)
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Denver Principles, the Bill of Rights that emboldens people living with HIV and AIDS that we are more than a diagnosis. We are whole people, whole communities. Created by people living with HIV/AIDS at the Second National AIDS Forum in Denver, Colorado on June 12, 1983, this compact sought to push back against the dehumanizing narrative about communities impacted by HIV and AIDS. The opening salvo of the Denver Principles is as poignant and powerful now as it was forty years ago:
We condemn attempts to label us as "victims," a term which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally "patients," a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others.
We are "People With AIDS."
Without question, the Denver Principles are our community’s North Star for those impacted, stigmatized, and disempowered by HIV.
Recently, I had the distinct privilege to represent AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC) and the communities we serve at the festivities commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Denver Principles presented by Ribbon and the U.S. People Living with HIV Caucus (PLHIV) in the nation’s capital. To be completely honest, I attended these events tired and reluctant, facing burnout in the face. Traveling to Washington, DC, I began to wonder if my advocacy mattered. If I still mattered? Looking back, I now realize that everything happens for a reason. There are no coincidences in life, just magical opportunities to be inspired.
During this anniversary celebration, I had the honor to sit at the feet of so many people living with HIV that I have admired both near and far including Richard Berkowitz, Linda Scruggs, and Ronald Johnson. In a very intimate Fireside Chat, all three of these powerful leaders shared their thoughts on the Denver Principles and their motivation for continuing to do the work. They all shared how the community works collectively to push unity while also teaching our new generations of leaders how to get to the table.
Richard Berkowitz, the last living author of the Denver Principles, first shared that his Eureka moment entering the conference in Denver forty years ago was “why do you allow people to take your hope away?” He shared that after communities came out of the 1970s with pride only to be made sitting targets by HIV/AIDS, the authors of the Denver Principles “wanted to show people a way out.”
Living with HIV for more than 32 years, Linda Scruggs, Co-Executive Director of Ribbon, shared that she remembers the first time she encountered the Denver Principles. At the time, people were being taught how to die but the Principles gave her purpose and validates who she is and the legacy she wants to leave. She later added that she is “living on a gift” because “she was supposed to die 32 years ago.”
When he was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, Ronald Johnson, Chair of the U.S. PLHIV Caucus, “accepted the myths that he was a victim” until he learned about the Denver Principles. He shared that at the beginning of the epidemic, Black and Latiné gay men weren't welcomed in many HIV/AIDS spaces due to cultural divides and racial ignorance. However, it was through his working with Black gay men where he first began to see the value of his advocacy.
Having the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of how these leaders persevered despite insurmountable odds is an experience I will forever cherish. These leaders have shown me how to continue doing the work with grit and determination. As Linda shared, “HIV gave me a cause to fight because I need to be free.” Buoyed by the Denver Principles, their invaluable lessons and words have inspired me beyond measure. I cannot adequately describe how overwhelmed I am with gratitude.
As a person living and thriving with HIV, the Denver Principles have given me everything I could have dreamed of and more. Hope. Vision. Self-agency. A future that I thought unimaginable nearly 14 years ago. I am fully aware that I stand on the shoulders of those who fought like hell to give me that future. I honor your courage and fortitude and I am eternally grateful. I also want to thank those currently on the frontlines for continuing the mission of the Denver Principles by doing the work unafraid and unencumbered by stigma, discrimination, and criminalization. I am honored to proudly stand with you to fight for this future for people living with and vulnerable to HIV. And finally, to the new generation of advocates and activists engaging in this work--especially our Black and Latiné folks. I encourage you to come to the table brimming with your ideas, experiences, and passion. Make sure your voice is heard and you take up space. Together, we will press onward for forty more years-- engineering a movement that finally ends the HIV epidemic. Because there’s nothing about us without us.